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Bozo The Clown Larry Harmon


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Bozo the Clown Actor Larry Harmon

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Actor Larry 'Bozo the Clown' Harmon

LOS ANGELES, California -- Actor Larry Harmon, who turned the character, Bozo the Clown, into a show business staple that delighted children for more than a half-century, died Thursday, July 3 of congestive heart failure at his home according to his publicist, Jerry Digney. He was 83.

Although not the original Bozo, Harmon portrayed the popular clown in countless appearances and, as an entrepreneur, he licensed the character to others, particularly dozens of television stations around the country. The stations in turn hired actors to be their local Bozos.

"You might say, in a way, I was cloning BTC (Bozo the Clown) before anybody else out there got around to cloning DNA," Harmon said in a 1996 interview. "Bozo is a combination of the wonderful wisdom of the adult and the childlike ways in all of us."

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Larry Harmon as Bozo the Clown

Pinto Colvig, who also provided the voice for Walt Disney's Goofy, originated Bozo the Clown when Capitol Records introduced a series of children's records in 1946. Harmon would later meet his alter ego while answering a casting call to make personal appearances as a clown to promote the records.

He got that job and eventually bought the rights to Bozo. Harmon launched the first Bozo children's show on KTLA-TV Channel 5 in Los Angeles in 1959, with Colvig's son, Vance, playing the role. From there, Harmon began franchising Bozo, and the bulb-nosed clown with the big feet became an iconic children's show character around the nation and the world.

Among those Harmon trained to portray the carrot-topped character on TV, included future "The Today Show" weatherman Willard Scott and Los Angeles television weatherman Johnny Mountain. Bozo wasn't Harmon's only alter ego. In the early 1950s, Harmon starred in the "Commander Comet" TV series.

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Larry Harmon portrayed 'Commander Comet' in the

1950 television sci-fi series

In the mid-1950s, Harmon launched Larry Harmon Pictures Corp., which turned out animated cartoons featuring not only Bozo but also Popeye, Mr. Magoo, Dick Tracy and Laurel and Hardy (Harmon acquired the rights to the comedy duo in 1960.) His company continues to license the names and characters of Bozo and Laurel and Hardy worldwide.

A Harris poll once recognized Bozo as the world's most famous clown. Along the way, Harmon embellished Bozo's distinctive look: the orange-tufted hair, the bulbous nose, the outlandish red, white and blue costume. "I felt if I could plant my size 83AAA shoes on this planet, (people) would never be able to forget those footprints," he said.

Susan Harmon, his wife of 29 years, indicated Harmon was the perfect fit for Bozo. "He was the most optimistic man I ever met. He always saw a bright side; he always had something good to say about everybody. He was the love of my life," she fondly recalled.

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Harmon with a Bozo performer at the National Assn.

of Television Program Executives convention in Las

Vegas, Nevada in 1996

The business -- combining animation, licensing of the character, and personal appearances -- made millions, as Harmon trained more than 200 Bozos over the years to represent him in local markets. "I'm looking for that sparkle in the eyes, that emotion, feeling, directness, warmth. That is so important," he said of his criteria for becoming a Bozo.

The Chicago version of Bozo ran on WGN-TV in Chicago for 40 years and was seen in many other cities after cable television transformed WGN into a superstation. Bozo -- portrayed in Chicago for many years by Bob Bell -- was so popular that the waiting list for tickets to a TV show eventually stretched to a decade.

The demand for tickets and the prolonged waiting list prompted the station to stop taking reservations for 10 years. On the day in 1990 when WGN started taking reservations again, it took just five hours to book the show for five more years.

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Larry Harmon in 1954

The phone company reported more than 27 million phone call attempts had been made. By the time the show bowed out in Chicago, in 2001, it was the last locally produced version. Harmon said at the time that he hoped to develop a new cable or network show, as well as a Bozo feature film.

He became caught up in a minor controversy in 2004 when the International Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee took down a plaque honoring him as Bozo and formally endorsed Colvig for creating the role. Harmon denied ever misrepresenting Bozo's history.

He said he was claiming credit only for what he added to the character -- "What I sound like, what I look like, what I walk like" -- and what he did to popularize Bozo. Harmon said, "Isn't it a shame the credit that was given to me for the work I have done, they arbitrarily take it down, like I didn't do anything for the last 52 years."

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Larry Harmon was protective of the Bozo reputation

Harmon protected Bozo's reputation with a vengeance, while embracing those who poked good-natured fun at the clown. As Bozo's influence spread through popular culture, his very name became a synonym for clownish behavior.

"It takes a lot of effort and energy to keep a character that old fresh so kids today still know about him and want to buy the products," said Karen Raugust, executive editor of The Licensing Letter, a New York-based trade publication. "A normal character runs its course in three to five years. Harmon's is a classic character. It's been around 50 years."

Harmon was born Lawrence Weiss in Toledo, Ohio, on January 2, 1925 and raised in Cleveland. After serving in the Army during World War II, he moved to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California, where he majored in theater and was drum major in the Trojan marching band. At USC, he started acting in radio and movies.

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Harmon, here with Bozo memorabilia in 1995, rode

a float in the 1996 Rose Parade

On New Year's Day 1996, Harmon dressed up as Bozo for the first time in 10 years, appearing in the Rose Parade in Pasadena. The crowd reaction, he recalled, "was deafening. They kept yelling, 'Bozo, Bozo, love you, love you.'"

"I shed more crocodile tears for five miles in four hours than I realized I had," Harmon continued. "I still get goose bumps. Bozo is a star, an entertainer, bigger than life. People see him as Mr. Bozo, somebody you can relate to, touch and laugh with."

Harmon is survived by his wife, Sally; his son, Jeff Harmon; his daughters, Lori Harmon, Marci Breth-Carabet, Ellen Kosberg and Leslie Breth and four grandchildren. Funeral services are pending.

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